Twenty-One Arrow Salute
The jab to my chin came from nowhere, snapping my head to one side. It hurt, damn it. Tears stained my vision. I staggered, jumping away from the window of the bathhouse and down onto the gritty path beneath it.
“Verhan Tŭrryés, you sick bastard.”
I sighed. If I had a silverfor every time I found myself at the receiving end of that phrase, I’d be the richest Dark Elf in the Highlands. I moved my jaw experimentally, relieved to ascertain that its hinges held fine, and faced my squad’s leader, Achiah.
Considering the thin press of her lips and the black slits of her eyes, she didn’t stand there to propose I be her date to the Archers’ Fete. More was the pity, as I still didn’t have a partner and would hardly refuse her. The girl had mighty sweet lips on her, shaped like a ripe, freshly-peeled fruit of pashjia, just as red and juicy. And my gods, the perkiest pair of—
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” My gaze must’ve wandered too low because she pointed her two splayed fingers towards her eyes in a jerky look-at-me gesture. “Didn’t I catch you peeping at the girls last bathing day? Now you’re back spying on the lads? Have you got no shame?”
“Not a great amount, no,” I admitted with calm. “Neither do I have a set preference.” That was true, too. Girls, boys, anything with a pulse—I didn’t mind.
“Wait. Isn’t it the officers’ turn to bathe?” she said, climbing up to the window herself to steal a brief glance. When she descended, her face lit up like the sky on the Night of Lights. “Oh, this is too precious. You’re salivating over Captain Akhini?”
As if she could blame me. The man’s buttocks, round and firm, looked like a masterpiece some besotted artist had carved from smooth, creamy marble.
She clucked her tongue. “You’re a disgrace to the uniform, Verhan. Start acting like a Queen’s Guard for fuck’s sake, since by the gods’ miracle, you are one. I won’t have anyone mess around in my squad.” She paused for effect and squinted at me. “If I report you to the Commander, you’ll be your pointy ears deep in shit.”
Uh-huh. That I couldn’t dispute. To start with, the accurate word to describe Commander Yennés’ sense of humour would be negligent. He’d already displayed, well, twitchy behaviour around me. People tended to have such a reaction for reasons I never understood. Secondly, the possessiveness the Commander displayed over Captain Akhini, his long-term partner, was legendary. All in all, it promised me a bleak outcome. “I’m sensing an alternative somewhere in there,” I said carefully. “What do you want, Achiah?”
The long, scrutinising look she cast me set off an unpleasant tingling between my shoulder blades. And with that, my hope of wiggling out of this mess unscathed keeled over and died right in front of me on the gravel.
“Seinnés,” she said.
“Seinnés?” I repeated, raising my eyebrows. I didn’t know the Asirhwÿnian very well, even though we’d completed our initial training at the same camp and since then ended up in the same unit. “What about him?”
“He needs a wee bit of help. He’s a good archer, but I’ve noticed he’s been struggling with the instructions during the drills.”
I stared at her. Well, that made sense, seeing that Seinnés didn’t speak the mountain dialect, which had been the language of command within the Queen’s Guard since its foundation.
The Queen’s Guard wasn’t called The Highland Regiment for shits and giggles. Traditionally, the unit only accepted Dark Elves. However, of late—and after a public debate that threw flashy concepts like inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity into the air—Queen Nae’amh decided to allow only the best non-Highlander archers to join. Still, so far not more than a handful of them had been offered a place. They’d blended in somehow, even in terms of looks, all of them by chance dark-haired and robust. But Seinnés, with his vivid auburn hair, green eyes and svelte, delicate physique stood out.
“So?” I said with a frown. “What do you want me to do about that?”
“Teach him the basics.”
I wanted to laugh. But sobered as soon as it occurred to me that she meant it. “I don’t want to,” I announced, ill-tempered.
“Go on, ask me if I give a shit, Verhan.”
Nah. Clearly, she didn’t.
We eyed each other for a time. A group of archers jogged past, interrupting our silent stand-off and forcing us off the main path. Their boots hit the ground—left, right, left, right—raising a cloud of dust from the dry soil around us.
A tickle started at the back of my throat.
“There is more,” she added after a while.
“How wonderful.” My foul mood had blossomed from non-existent into fully-fledged in a snap. And to think that my day had started so well.
Ignoring my muttering, she continued, “He’s been chosen to be a Guard of Honour during the celebration of the Queen’s Namesday.”
My mouth fell open. “What? They want him to perform the Twenty-One Arrow Salute? Three weeks fromFreeday?”
“Why, yes. Amongst the other six archers, as customary. But he’ll be the centre shooter. The Commander thought it would send a nice message.”
This piece of information rendered me speechless, but that state, quite foreign to me, passed swiftly. “What message? Come for the parade, die in a freaky bow and arrow accident?” I spluttered, amazed at the idiocy of this idea. “The poor fucker doesn’t know how to handle an asymmetric bow! And they want him to shoot magically enhanced arrows armed with explosives, using a weapon he’s not familiar with? Above a massive crowd of Elves? The entire capital will gather there, for the gods’ sake—it’ll be a disaster! Or he’ll lose an arm. Probably both.” I kept shaking my head until I felt a little wobbly.
Since ancient times, the Twenty-One Arrow Salute had been a ceremonial way in which the Highland Regiment observed important state events. Each Honour Guard released three arrows, sending elaborate fireworks over the capital sky. The Asirhwÿnians loved the spectacle. They revered the chosen seven. In particular, the centre shooter, whose arrows marked the highest point in the mountain-shaped volley, a symbolic reference to the Highlands. As skilled an archer as Seinnés might be—and I didn’t argue against this point—he shot a regular, symmetrical bow, smaller and heavier than the ones favoured by us. To loose an arrow from a mountain bow correctly required the application of a different technique altogether. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing so safely without any previous experience and with the eyes of every inhabitant of the capital set upon him. The awareness that the arrows were enchanted with the purpose of exploding some twenty fucking seconds after being released didn’t help matters, I reckoned.
Achiah’s fruity mouth curled into a smile that showed off a dimple in her right cheek. “Quit having a fit. He won’t. Because that’s where you come in. You’ll teach him to shoot the mountain way.”
I snorted. “Like hell I will.”
“Oh, you will.” Her eyebrows came together in an impressive glower. “Or I’m marching myself to the Commander right now to have a little chat about your unhealthy bathhouse preoccupation. But don’t worry. I’m sure Yennés will take kindly to your enthusiasm for, um, hygiene. Won’t break your nose or nothing.”
I heaved a half-faked gasp. “Blackmail, Achiah? That’s nasty.”
“Thank you. I’m rather pleased with it, myself.” She gave a contented nod and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Glad you got the gist of it.”
I looked at the ground as if expecting to discover a solution to my predicament lying in the dirt. But given that I didn’t, I kicked a stone with my boot instead. “Fuck you,” I murmured under my breath.
“You wish, Verhan, but it ain’t gonna happen. Now go and find the lad. You have a week to shape him up.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. Truth be told, I had nothing against Seinnés or, for that matter, anything better to do right then. But the element of coercion inAchiah’s command had my stubbornness rearing like a wild, temperamental stallion.
“Come on, Verhan.” Achiah softened her voice. “A few quick morning sessions. Just to give him a head start until his rehearsals with the Honour Guard begin in a few days. Then we’ll call it quits. How bad can it be? Seinnés needs someone to show him the ropes, that’s all. He’ll catch on in no time.”
“No, thanks. He won’t want me to teach him, anyway.”
“How do you know? Have you exchanged one poxy word with him so far? Has anyone?”
That question made me pause. Had Seinnés felt alienated within his home unit? When I thought about it, I’d always seen him on his own. “He’s an arse,” I said, a little defensive.
“Is he now?” she asked with a tilt of her head. “Would that be because, I hear, he came close to beating your dear cousin in a shooting competition back at the training camp? Or because he’s an Asirhwÿnian and not a Highlander?”
“Both.” The answer escaped my tongue before I had a chance to think it through.
She jerked her head backwards. The movement swept her long, raven braid back over her shoulder. “That’s just sad, Verhan. I’ve never taken you for a racist tosser. I stand corrected.”
I felt the tips of my ears growing hot. She had a point. I bit my lip. “How did he take the news, then? Shitting his fancy little knickers, is he?”
“Well, I’ve been busy.”Achiah’s cheeks tinged pink. “Haven’t quite got round to telling him yet.”
“Of course you haven’t.” I rolled my eyes. “Why me, Achiah?”
“Because you’re stupid enough to get in trouble all the time? And I have no problem using that against you?” She shrugged. “But also—and don’t let it go to your head—I’ve seen you helping others, showing them tricks with the bow and such. If you took your head out of your arse, you’d make a decent hyoshie one day.”
I stared at her for a bit. “So what you’re really telling me here is that you want me, right? Because we could—”
“We really couldn’t.” The ice in her tone, reinforced with a derisive snort, would’ve bruised my pride if I had any. “Listen, what’s it gonna be? I’ve got no time to piss about with you. I’d train the lad myself—gods know he’s no eyesore—but I’m stretched thin as it is. So here’s your choice: do as I say, or spend a couple of days in the hole treating your injuries.” She buffed her nails on a sleeve of her woollen tunic and extended a hand to examine the result. “It’s all the same to me.”
“And there I went thinking you didn’t care for a minute.”
“Verhan, I’m getting old here.”
“Fine,” I snapped. “Gods, no need to go on and on about it. I’ll fucking do it.”
“Brilliant,” she chirped and twirled around to bugger off as soon as I managed to get the words out. “Who knows, you might even enjoy it,” she shot over her shoulder.
Sure, I would. As much as I enjoyed having a chafed cock.